When I first became a mom, one of the things I worried about a lot was imparting to J just how hard it was to take care of a baby all day. A baby who, I should mention, slept all the time. Like in restaurants and at coffee shops and in her swing and in her carseat and straight through the night when she was only about 12 weeks old. Nora was a wonderful baby. Wonderful. And I could have been writing the great American novel during my maternity leave with her. But you only get to be a stressed out new mom once, am I right? Why waste the chance?
Anyway, looking back, this was an annoying stance to take. I’m not sure I could have avoided it, though. Because, no matter how enlightened and evolved we get, how much we view men and women as equals, and how hard we try to value all kinds of “work,” whether it’s in the home or office, it’s pretty shocking to go from being a person who feels productive and in charge of her schedule to a person whose duties involve watching a baby sleep while tiptoeing to the kitchen to heat up her coffee for the one millionth (not an exaggeration) time, who is now at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. And that someone else is not an authority figure. That someone else has super tiny, adorable toes. And is your master.
I’ve written about this before plenty (most notably in this Salon piece from a few years ago, “My motherhood martyr routine.”). About how when Nora was a baby, it took me awhile to find my place in the world again; by Gabriel, I was so much more relaxed in the role; and by Adriana, I not only felt completely comfortable being a mom of three, I loved it. I’d wonder over her during late night feedings, not even a little bit resentful about another night of broken sleep.
Ok, maybe I was resentful a couple times. Not much though.
Point is, I got over it pretty quickly, and thank god, because trying to prove to other people - especially other people you love, like your husband - that something has been really difficult for you is a tiring and futile enterprise. I mean, first of all, they usually know. Secondly, they pretty much definitely knew after the first text you sent, so the fifth one was unnecessary.
(Does this mean I’m not going to send multiple texts this afternoon when the children are inevitably fighting in the minivan for the 12 millionth - not an exaggeration, either - time this week? It does not, J. Get ready!)
I did get over it. However, the feeling has returned recently. I mean, not in the same way. I’m 41, after all! Wiser! Less prone to crises about the meaning of life and not missing any meals or coffee or sleep due to a newborn. More level headed, you might say. But also very solidly not a mom to a baby anymore. A parent of three kids. Kid-kids, who are independent and much less labor intensive than their younger selves, but also capable of fighting with eachother with a ferocity so intense that I no longer worry if the neighbors can hear our family screaming - they can - I just hope their response is a sympathetic, “I remember those days!” and not a concerned, “Should we call someone?”
Nora, my wonderful baby turned wonderful, even-keeled 11-year-old, wouldn’t fight at all if she wasn’t drawn into the fire by siblings so persistent you’d have to be either an actual saint or highly drugged to ignore them. Ignoring them, though, is what I urge her to do, understanding how difficult that is because it’s tough for me, too.
Gabe and Aidy are expert fighters. They are experts at riling one another up, experts at not backing down and experts at insults. Aidy is only five, but if you substituted curse words for some of her more age-appropriate adjectives, she’d be a legit mob boss. I can’t remember exactly, but I think she told Gabe she was going to burn him in a fire and then drink him out of a thermos the other day. So cute!
Fighting isn’t something I ever worried about before I had children who did it. Me and my brother fought a bunch when we were little - throwing both verbal and physical punches - and today he’s one of my favorite people and best friends in the world, even if we still harbor some friendly sibling rivalry (I will beat you at life, Vinnie!)
I still don’t worry about it. Fighting seems expected. Normal. It’s tough to live in one house and share resources with people. No big deal. That’s not the problem.
What I didn’t realize was how much the fighting can make a parent crazy. Or at least, this particular parent.
It’s not only loud - and, when it happens in the car, seems actually dangerous - but it makes me less able to do anything productive when I’m home because I’m continually being interupted by death shouts and wondering if I need to intervene. I really do believe this will pass (it will pass right?!?!?!?!) but right now it feels like a tsunami coming at me where all I can deal with is about 5 percent. The rest of the insanity is gonna get a pass because I need to make dinner or step outside and sit on the back step for a few, listening to the birds (and muted sounds of the civil war taking place in the living room over Magnatiles).
So, the feeling came back. Maybe I’d get a text from J - who has been working really hard and putting a ton of time in at work lately - saying he’s super tired from a long day, and I’d immediately think, “You’re tired? Huh. You didn’t exactly have to deal with literally 20 minutes of high-pitched post-kindergarten wailing on the drive to piano lessons, during which you had to employ the kind of deep breathing they taught us to get through contractions during birth and labor classes, but yes. I guess you are probably tired.”
I mean, I’d never write that (or not all of it, anyway…) And honestly, these inner tirades I have aren’t truly, or fairly, directed at J. I’m proud of him. He is having long days. He is tired out from working so hard. I’m not resentful that his work hours are currently longer than mine and I also know that he does get it, because he sees all the stuff on the home front, too.
Plus, that advice everyone loves to give you about enjoying “these days”? I’m doling that out at this point. I love these kids!
It’s not any of that. It’s just that the fighting is a fairly new thing and I’m once again in a role I don’t really know how to navigate. I really want someone to know how hard it is, and while I’ve got amazing friends to vent to, it also seems urgent that the person I share my life with knows Every. Last. Detail.
Plus, it sometimes feels - well - lame that the hard thing I’m dealing with on any given afternoon is that I don’t know if I should punish or ignore an “accidental” yet “very hard” pinch that I’ve just been informed of, and the hard thing my husband is dealing with is a long string of meetings and some super cool science that will probably save lives one day.
There’s a lot of other factors that could come into play in this discussion. I could write about men’s and women’s roles and domestic work and emotional labor - and hey, maybe I will write about that stuff another time! - but here, for brevity’s sake (you know, my middle name “brevity”) I’m simply talking about this one feeling, and how I’ve been indulging in it again lately after a welcome break; the feeling where I want my husband to know just how hard it is to deal with these kids during the long afternoons that feel like weeks when he is still at work. How I want to share this with him the minute he walks through the door and can their bedtime be at 5:30 pm tonight? How I sort of feel in a competition with him, but he doesn’t know about it.
(The other thing I’m not writing about here is how much fun I have with the kids so much of the time. But you and I, we’re past that, right? You know I’m a happy, lucky, grateful person who often writes rambling pieces about this or that topic, and trusts that the people reading get that this is just one example pulled from a full and rewarding life, correct?)
The reason I’m thinking about this is that J went away to a conference for a few days recently and a few very notable things happened: I missed him; I missed commiserating with him at the day’s end; I did not miss trying to prove my specific level of misery to him. I felt, in fact, lighter with the absence of that feeling.
And when he told me he was tired after his conference was over, I recognized my prior patterns, and only thought for a second, “Oh? Tired from having beers and fun talks with new science friends and not from having to dodge hard plastic tiaras that have been lodged into the air as weapons?”
I mean, I did think that, fine, but I let it pass. Then I decided that I really hate that feeling. And I decided that trying to prove how difficult something has been for you is different than sharing how difficult something has been for you.
I decided that feeling like these domestic trials are lame is fine and that wishing I could work offsite through the afternoon hours is also fine. That knowing we both had difficult days and then binging “Succession” is excellent. Let me be clear, this only works if you have a partner who really does care about how it’s going with you. If you don’t, find a new one! I mean, if you want. I’ll support that decision.
It turns out that after I explained these feelings to J, I felt way better. Then I took it a step further and wrote it all out here, since I figured some of you guys might get it. Or at least humor me. And I don’t think these feelings are specific to parenting at all. I mean, we are all super capable of this nonsense! Camaraderie!
Since I’ve once again unloaded all my feelings, it’s only fair to ask: how was your day? Did you have a very long meeting? Did someone call you a “mommy who doesn’t listen to me, because she doesn’t have any ears anymore”?
Good news. Despite the creative insults of my children, I do have ears. I’m listening. Go!